Judge Dan Mancini once had Wyoming on his mind. Obviously, he'll never be a world-renowned R&B singer.
Our review of Ray (Blu-Ray), published January 20th, 2011, is also available.
The extraordinary life story of Ray Charles. A man who fought harder and went farther than anyone thought possible.
It's difficult to believe it wasn't much more than a decade ago that Jamie Foxx was a second-string player on the sketch comedy show, In Living Color, making a small name for himself with his horse-faced, sexually aggressive, ghetto-fabulous character, Wanda. Foxx's film career began inauspiciously with Booty Call and The Players Club, but within a few years he was sneaking in effective dramatic performances in Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday and Michael Mann's Ali. 2004 saw Foxx's acting career come into full bloom with a powerful supporting turn opposite Tom Cruise in Mann's Collateral, as well as his Oscar-winning lead performance in Taylor Hackford's Ray.
Facts of the Case
Ray explores the life and career of rhythm and blues maverick Ray Charles from just after World War II until the late 1970s. The movie focuses on Charles's controversial synthesis of gospel with R&B, and his rise to fame at Ahmet Ertegun's (Curtis Armstrong, Revenge of the Nerds) Atlantic Records. Also covered are his struggles with heroin addiction; his long marriage to Della Bea Robinson (Kerry Washington, She Hate Me) and philandering with singers Margie Hendricks (Regina King, Daddy Day Care) and Mary Ann Fisher (Aunjanue Ellis, Undercover Brother); and the historic stand against segregation that got him banned from performing in the state of Georgia for over a decade. The movie punctuates these events with haunting flashbacks of a childhood defined by the death of his younger brother, the onset of his blindness, and his mother's tough-love approach to teaching him independence.
Make no mistake, Jamie Foxx deserved the little gold statue he won for Ray. His imitation of Charles's voice and mannerisms is so dead-on, one loses sight of the actor and sees only the young Ray Charles. But Foxx's performance isn't merely a hollow act of mimicry like Jim Carrey's turn as Andy Kaufman in Milos Forman's Man on the Moon. It's an emotionally complex performance that captures the good and bad of Charles, the truth that he lived life hard and without compromise. Foxx's performance is honest enough we find ourselves angry with Charles—with the consequences of his drug use, his infidelity, his hard-headedness—without ever disliking him. Foxx expertly reveals his character's warts without ever undermining his dignity or humanity. As a matter of fact, the warts only make Charles all the more human in our eyes. The movie congeals around the actor's astounding performance. It is the film's greatest strength, and it goes a long way in hiding its deepest flaws.
Biographical pictures can frustrate because chasing after a person's entire life too often produces epic-length films that feel scattershot and rushed. The scope of their tales defies reasonable dramatic rhythms, so biopics all too often achieve the dubious and counter-intuitive effect of being simultaneously too long and too brief. The best entries in the genre trade breadth for depth by limiting the story to a particularly dramatic period or event in the subject's life. One of the best examples of this approach is Milos Forman's Amadeus, which is less concerned with Mozart's life than it is with the nature of his talent and its implications for his peer Salieri. Perhaps Taylor Hackford thought he was taking a similar approach by limiting Ray to only three decades in Ray Charles's life and career, but the film still bites off more story than it can chew. A movie about Charles's musical innovations might have proven vibrant and exhilarating. One about the soulful yearning at the center of his marriage, sexual affairs, and drug addiction might have been emotionally dynamic. A picture about the poverty, deprivation, and tragedy of his childhood could have been gut-wrenching. But Ray traipses through each of these plotlines and, in so doing, fails to get to the heart of any one of them. Our trips back to his childhood feel particularly out of place, a distraction from the more interesting events throughout the rest of the film. Charles's relationship with his resilient mother (well played by newcomer Sharon Warren) is dynamic and fascinating, but Hackford never finds smooth transitions into the flashbacks. Their psychological connection to the behavior of the adult Ray is trite, and their resolution at the end of the film is hackneyed and incomplete. These periodic sojourns backward in time fatally dilute the picture's narrative power.
Besides Foxx's performance, Ray's other great strength is the music. Many of the performances throughout the film were newly recorded by Charles prior to his death, and are expertly lip-synched by Foxx (who actually played piano during the shooting of the scenes). One gets the sense Hackford struggled with the notion of making Ray a full-on musical, but couldn't figure out how to balance that genre's over-the-top stylistic conventions with the realism he wanted in other facets of the singer's life. He didn't go far enough in setting the music free to underpin theme and lead the audience's emotional response to the film. Perhaps the best integration of music, story, and style occurs when a fight between Ray and Margie Hendricks evolves into a hotel room duet of "Hit the Road Jack," and then segues into a full-band performance of the same number before a live audience. The scene is as stylistically artificial as a number in any Hollywood musical, as emotionally realistic as the non-musical drama in the rest of the film, and infectiously energetic. More of this sort of unapologetic surrender to the absurdities of the musical would've helped to sell the biopic clichés scattered throughout the picture, as when Ray steps off the bus he's ridden from Florida to Seattle and instantly meets a young Quincy Jones (Larenz Tate, Why Do Fools Fall In Love), who just happens to be leaning against a nearby brick wall and tooting his trumpet. If hokum like that can find its way into the final film, why not some more over-the-top musical numbers?
Universal's two-disc Special Edition of Ray comes in separate widescreen and full screen editions. It is the widescreen edition under review here, and the transfer is spectacular. Cinematographer Pawel Edelman (The Pianist) infused the film with a cool, blue-shifted color palette, except for the flashbacks to Ray's childhood, which are warm with yellows and oranges and slightly flashed. The DVD reproduces the stylized palettes perfectly. The source materials are entirely free of dirt or damage, and artifacts from the digital transfer process are minimal. The 1.85:1 anamorphic image is clean, sharp, and detailed.
Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround tracks are offered in both English and French. The soundscape is rich and enveloping, though the film obviously doesn't offer the booming sound effects of an action blockbuster. The music benefits most from the surround mix, and Hackford's opportunity to record new performances by Ray Charles pays off in musical numbers that are crisp and detailed, but still feel raw and live. Charles's music is distinguished by a soulful honesty that an excess of studio production might squelch. It's to Hackford's credit that he was able to record Charles and execute the numbers on film in such a way that the dual technologies of modern sound and film production don't lessen the impact of the songs. The production—both aural and visual—becomes almost invisible, leaving the music to work its magic on the viewer.
In addition to the theatrical cut of the film, this release offers an extended cut that runs approximately 178 minutes in length. Unfortunately, the alternate cut is offered via not-so-seamless branching: 14 deleted scenes are jammed sloppily into the theatrical cut, often overlapping awkwardly so that material is repeated. Moreover, the added material hasn't been color timed to match the film proper, and is offered in non-anamorphic widescreen. The jarring transitions and lower quality of the inserted material makes for a distracting experience. On the plus side, all of the added material also appears in a "Deleted Scenes" section on Disc Two. It's best to stick with the theatrical cut on Disc One and check out the excised material on Disc Two.
Disc One also offers a commentary by Taylor Hackford, who is informative, conversational, and spends much time praising Foxx.
In addition to the 14 deleted scenes, Disc Two offers complete musical performances of "What Kind of Man Are You?" and "Hit the Road Jack," which are edited down in the feature. The musical numbers are probably the highlight of the supplements. Information about the film's production is limited to an 11-minute featurette called "Stepping Into the Part," the highlight of which is Foxx's meeting with Ray Charles, who puts the actor's musical talent to the test; and a three-minute electronic press kit called "A Look Inside Ray." Finally, "Ray Remembered" is a four-minute featurette that collects video tributes to Charles from performers as varied as Quincy Jones, Al Green, Willie Nelson, and Tony Bennett.
Truth be told, Ray is only a mediocre biopic. It tries to tell too much story, and ends up feeling piecemeal and incomplete as a result. In addition, the thin supplements and poorly executed extended cut of the film, leave Universal's Special Edition DVD feeling less than special.
Having said all that, Jamie Foxx's performance is so remarkable, it's not to be missed. If you didn't catch Ray in the theater, it's worth a rental.
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Scales of Justice
• Extended Edition of Ray
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